FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — About 100 purple-clad fans serenaded LSU baseball players with chants and claps as they walked off the field at Baum Stadium following the Tigers’ 7-4 win over Arkansas on Saturday.
Everyone seemed happy.
Coach Paul Mainieri walked off smiling, a heavy look of relief on his face. Players mingled with family members who had made the trip. Shortstop Alex Bregman and second baseman Jared Foster spoke to a reporter through laughs.
Meanwhile, coach Alan Dunn and two of his pitchers — Zac Person and Alden Cartwright — had serious conversations.
No smiles. No laughs.
“They struggled throwing strikes,” Mainieri said later. “One of those days for them.”
LSU (21-3, 4-2 Southeastern) won a second straight conference rubber match and did something rarely done: The Tigers claimed a series after losing Game 1. But a collapse from the bullpen nearly ruined the Tigers’ series-clinching win over the Razorbacks (11-11, 1-5).
Collin Strall allowed the first run of his career, Person doubled his runs allowed all season in five batters faced and Cartwright lasted just two batters. A 5-1 lead turned into a 5-4 advantage before closer Jesse Stallings got the final five outs. He, too, allowed two base runners.
Relievers filled LSU’s win with unnecessary anxious moments and had Mainieri pacing in the dugout as the lead dwindled.
“Looked like we were going to cruise to a win there. Uncharacteristically, our bullpen just had trouble throwing the ball over the plate,” he said. “I don’t know what it was with all of them. That’s not typical of those guys in our bullpen.”
LSU’s bullpen had what could be considered just its fourth rough game of the first 24. They allowed five runs in an 8-5 win over Kansas and three in a win over Southeastern Louisiana, and Stallings blew a save in an eventual loss to Ole Miss.
They’ve cost LSU one loss, but — oh, boy — they almost had No. 2 on Saturday. The relievers were “bailed out,” Mainieri said, by a handful of great defensive plays.
Jake Fraley made a hard-charging play on a line drive in the eighth with two on base, and Bregman had a pair of inning-ending forceouts with runners on. Second baseman Jared Foster made the toughest play since moving to his new position two weeks ago, and Mark Laird had a running flyout in the ninth in foul territory.
And then there’s this: LSU turned a 5-2-3 double play in the seventh with the bases loaded to end the inning — the first double play of that kind since Mainieri took over in 2007.
“Our pitchers are going to go out there and battle,” said catcher Kade Scivicque, who had a two-hit day, turned that bases-loaded double play, blocked well behind the plate and picked off a runner at second. “They’re going to give us a chance to win. Our defense made great plays. It pushes us through.”
The top-ranked team in the land, in at least one poll, is through to Week 7 of the season having survived some heart-pounders — Saturday’s game and a 10-inning, 4-2 win over Southern. Next is Tuesday at Tulane, a team just outside of a couple of Top 25 rankings.
It’s another shot for reliever-turned-starter Russell Reynolds to solidify his spot as the Tigers’ No. 4 starter. It’s a chance, too, for the bullpen to get some redemption.
Relievers walked four, struck out one, hit two and allowed five hits and three runs Saturday.
Parker Bugg, the first reliever in for starter Jake Godfrey, walked his first batter to start the sixth. He got out of the inning, but Person had his woes to start the seventh.
The Hogs had three straight hits against him, including a double and a two-run single to close their deficit to 5-3.
He hit his last batter, and Mainieri took him out.
“He wasn’t sharp,” Mainieri said. “He just wasn’t real sharp. Pitched great all year.”
How great? Person had given up two hits and one run in his first 11 innings this season.
Strall hit his first batter to load the bases before LSU turned that 5-2-3 double play. Strall walked the first two batters in the eighth, and Cartwright hit his first batter and allowed a single, ending Strall’s season-opening 11 innings without allowing a run.
Stallings entered and retired the final two batters, but he walked the leadoff man in the ninth and allowed a single.
No sweat. Laird made that on-the-run catch in foul territory, and Bregman had the game-ending play — with runners on first and third — by racing to his left and grabbing a short grounder to the first base side of second.
“Those pitchers go and compete,” Bregman said. “We’ve got to make clutch plays for them. There’s no such thing as clutch pitching without clutch defense behind them.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.